Negotiation|systems design

Game Theory, Negotiation, and the "Black Box"

James F. Ring and some colleagues gave a fascinating talk at the recent ABA Dispute Resolution Section on Game Theory.  Where it started was cutting a cake.  Where it ended was cutting out the lawyers, at least by implication.

In addition to his law practice, Mr. Ring runs an enterprise called Fair Outcomes, Inc.  His talk was not so much a “sell job” for his company as it was a discourse on the reasons why conventional approaches to negotiation may have serious limitations.


Game theory, according to Ring, is a discipline that describes, and to a large degree predicts, human behavior to the extent that the people participating in the game act rationally and in their self-interest.  Games can assist us in creating structures that take away all incentives or rewards for irrational or non-self-interested behavior, yielding a predicatable set of interactions.  Many students and teachers of negotiation are familiar with the theories behind the game “Prisoner’s Dilemma.”

The simplest example is “I-Cut-You-Pick.”  Jack cuts the cake and Jill chooses which piece of cake she will take.  As long as both Jack and Jill are interested in maximizing their piece of the cake, Jack has no incentive to cut anything but “fairly.”

The next varient adds what Ring variously called “commitment” or “coercion.”  The game rules are that Jack cuts, and if Jill doesn’t accept the piece Jack offers, then neither of them gets any cake.  Jack has an incentive to be piggy, and Jill will accept a smaller piece than Jack rather than having no piece at all. 


But iterative results of this game show that there is a point at which Jill becomes so disgusted with Jack’s behavior that she will refuse any cake at all, thus denying them both.  So, according to Ring, the cake-cutter can take 55%, 65%, 75% and get away with it — but somewhere around an 80/20 split he ends up frustrating them both.

cake, tips, cutting, knife,

Similar behavior happens in legal disputes.  If a party makes a proposal that falls outside the range that most would consider reasonable, it is rejected.  Indeed, even an offer within that range might be rejected if it is made under circumstances that lead the offeree to conclude that further concessions will be forthcoming, rather than their both rolling the dice with a judge or jury.

Ring cited the behavior of Hernando Cortés in entering Vera Cruz to confront Montezuma.  Having landed his men, horses, supplies and ammunition, Cortez ordered that his ships be burnt in front of the amazed eyes of Montezuma’s army.  The strategy was what Ring called “commitment” —  Cortés was telling Montezuma that they would work something out or not work something out, but that he wasn’t going away. 

Montezuma had to decide how small a piece of cake he was willing at accept.

What are the implications for bargainers?  The simple game — 50/50 — is like a “buy/sell” offer.  It is the amount of money that the offerer would either pay to purchase a partner’s interest, or accept to sell his own interest.  The varient game, on the other hand, is like a “black box.”  One party inserts a number into the box, reflecting the value s/he will accept (or, if a defendant, the value s/he will pay) in settlement.   That “demand” number is frozen inside the box and can’t be changed.   The other party puts an “offer” number in the box, reflecting the value s/he is willing to pay (or accept).  The box will tell the second party whether that “offer” number matches the first “demand” number.  If it does not, the second party can increase its offer any time over a period of (say) 30 days. If the box reports an eventual match, the matter is settled.  If the second party is unwilling to offer as high as the first party demanded, then no cake for anybody.

 The black box won’t reveal the other side’s number to you unless there’s a match, and if there is no match the box could create an attestation to the offeror of the number the other side had failed to meet — an incentive for the second party to make reasonable offers. 

The implication is that negotiation not only is unnecessary, but often an obstacle to resolution.  Negotiation expends time, injects emotions, and encourages nonsense like bluffing and other expensive and time-consuming distractions into the process. 

Janet Kloenhamer, who until recently was President of one Fireman’s Fund Insurance company and, before that, General Counsel of another, has sometimes wished that there was a “black box” for resolution of contested insurance claims.  Insurance companies have tens of thousands of disputes, whether between them and policyholders or among them and other insurers.  They all resolve, of course, but until they do she pays hundreds of lawyers all around the country to handle them.  Why, she has wondered, can’t there be a “black box” online somewhere, where she could put in her bid and see how many she can just close up?

Mr. Ring, meet Ms. Kloenhamer.

  1. A long time before I ever heard of mediation, we still used to settle a lot of cases using some of these techniques. I remember a meeting with opposing counsel where we played the game of each writing a number down on a piece of paper, and then opening each other’s papers to see if we had agreed. We did eventually settle that case, but not on the first exchange of numbers.

    But before you can get to the point where you can resolve a case by cutting a cake or rolling dice or putting numbers into a black box, you first have to establish a mutual willingness to settle, a mutual understanding of the probable value of the case, and perhaps you also need to get past some of the emotional or distracting issues that are preventing settlement. I would not call that part of the discussion negotiation, and I’m not sure that work can be avoided in most cases. Whether you use mediation, or whether you just have a series of heart-to-heart conversations between lawyer and client or between the opposing parties directly, or between lawyer and opposing lawyer, you still need to get both parties to a place where they are receptive to using one of the negotiating techniques you describe. If mediation or some other process of dealing with those necessary issues has done its job, then what I would call the negotiation phase of a settlement discussion often is, as you suggest, surprisingly quick and painless.

  2. I want to express my appreciation for this very thoughtful article about the issues addressed in our session at the American Bar Association’s 2010 Dispute Resolution Conference in San Francisco. Note that a fully operational version of the “Black Box” referred to the article (a system that we refer to as “Fair Proposals – MCV”) can currently be accessed and used online for a $25 fee at

    Joe Markowitz’s comments are also genuinely appreciated. Game-theoretic and empirical studies demonstrate that traditional approaches to dispute resolution, including mediation, negotiation, and symmetrical exchanges of sealed bids, do not eliminate incentives to posture. Those studies support Joe’s view that negotiation techniques are not particularly productive unless and until both parties arrive at a point (such as the eve of trial) where the incentives to posture are reduced, the fear of appearing weak recedes, and where the parties are finally able to credibly acknowledge what Joe refers to as a “mutual willingness” to attempt to arrive at a reasonable settlement. (Of course, once the parties finally arrive at such a point, they don’t really need to use any sort of technology or “technique” at all – straightforward negotiations produce settlements in the vast majority of cases once the parties finally arrive at a position similar to the eve of trial.)

    In stark contrast, the “Black Box” referred to in the article is not a “negotiation technique.” It’s a commitment mechanism and a measuring device that one party can initiate and use unilaterally at any time (including prior to the filing of suit), without the other party’s cooperation or consent, in order to make a credible determination as to whether an outcome that it deems to be acceptable is acceptable to the other side (a determination that allows a party to justify devoting its resources to litigation in the event that it has inserted a reasonable proposal into the box and a settlement is not achieved). Unlike all other approaches to dispute resolution, there is no incentive for either party to propose an unreasonable outcome, or to try to use the system to posture, or to try to justify a failure to make a reasonable proposal out of a professed concern about appearing “weak.” This is because the information that either party can derive from or convey through the system in the absence of a settlement is extraordinarily limited. For example, if the case does not settle, the system will not even disclose to the initiating party whether the non-initiating party had used the system at all. There is, moreover, and as the article suggests, a strong disincentive for either party to fail to use the system to put forth a reasonable proposal: if either party makes a reasonable proposal and the other party does not, the party that did so will be able to demonstrate that the other party had walked away from a reasonable settlement without any justification or excuse. The system allows the initiating party to put itself in a position similar to the eve of trial and – by so doing – to put its adversary in a similar position.

    The manner in which these various features of the system work in combination with one another is further described on the above-referenced website. I am, again, deeply grateful for the article and for the attention that has thus far been given to the system on this website. I would invite anyone that wishes to explore these issues with me directly to contact me at jimring [at]

  3. I had to read James Ring’s response a couple of times, and then look at his website, and I’m still not sure I understand his concept, but I suspect we might be talking about two different things. I was thinking about all of the steps that parties have to go through before they are ready to negotiate, and Ring seems to be suggesting that we can avoid all those steps, and also avoid the whole negotiation phase as well. If that works, it sounds amazing. I wonder thought how much information he thinks we need about ourselves and the other side before we are ready to settle a case.

    I also wonder how his system works in the following scenario: Let’s say I would be willing to settle a claim against me by paying $75,000, but I’d rather pay only $50,000, or even less if I could get away with it. (In fact I don’t really think the claimant deserves to be paid anything at all, but I recognize the chance that his claim could cost me as much or more as I would be willing to pay, when you add up the legal fees, and the liability risk.) So in that situation, wouldn’t I be reluctant to put a $75,000 bid into the black box, because what I don’t know is whether the plaintiff would settle the case for even less? And the same would hold true for the other side. Maybe the plaintiff would also be willing to settle for as low as $75,000, but he thinks he deserves at least $100,000 and he also thinks the defendant might be willing to pay $80,000 or $90,000 or even the $100,000 that the plaintiff thinks he deserves.

    In that situation, both sides might be reluctant to put their most attractive numbers into the black box. Does the system allow for the possibility of multiple rounds, so that both sides can feel comfortable knowing that they made the best possible deal?

  4. Thanks for these very thoughtful questions, Joe. I think you’re correct that we are talking about two very different things, and in an effort to clarify this I’ve set sort forth below a detailed response to the questions that you raise.

    You describe a situation in which, before either party uses what Peter refers to as the Black Box (the “System”), you (the “Defendant”) have already privately identified a bottom-line number ($75,000). You also suggest that the Plaintiff may be willing to settle for $75,000, but you don’t suggest that it would be willing to go any lower. Thus, my understanding is that you’re inquiring about how the System would work in a situation where the parties may each have the same bottom line, i.e., a situation in which there is no surplus. In order to understand how the System works in this or any other given situation, we first have to have an understanding of how parties actually arrive at such numbers in the real world.

    The reason that the Defendant has a bottom line of $75,000 is, presumably, because it has concluded that, given the risks and costs associated with a trial, a reasonable settlement range would would cap out at $75,000. If the Defendant has calculated this range correctly (i.e., if an experienced, independent lawyer or mediator would agree that the case should settle for between $50,000 and $75,000 given the risks and costs faced by each party), then the Defendant should be indifferent to the possibility that the Plaintiff may have miscalculated and identified a range, as you posit, of between $75,000 to $100,000.

    Under the scenario that you describe, if the Defendant initiates a use of the System as a “First Party,” self-interest obliges the Defendant to specify a number falling within the above-referenced range ($50,000 – $75,000). If the Defendant proposes a number at the high end of that range ($75,000), perhaps because it is anxious to settle promptly due to outside factors, the Defendant may get a settlement under the scenario that you describe. However, so long as the Defendant has proposed a number that is close to or higher than the midpoint of that range (e.g., $62,500), the Defendant will still get something of significant value even if the Plaintiff has miscalculated and no settlement is achieved – the Defendant will, without having incurred any prejudice whatsoever to its bargaining position, be able to credibly establish and demonstrate (a) that the Defendant had proposed to settle for a number that fell well within the range of what was reasonable, and (b) that the Plaintiff had effectively walked away from that number (e.g., $62,500) under circumstances where the Plaintiff had no justification or excuse for doing so. (Note that the higher the number, the easier it is for the Defendant to make this demonstration). Under these conditions, the Defendant will be able to justify devoting its resources to litigation, and the Plaintiff and/or its counsel will face the prospect of substantial regret, recrimination, and – depending upon the circumstances – a potential claim for malpractice.

    If, alternatively, the Defendant proposes a number near the bottom of that range (e.g., $50,000), or below that range, then the Defendant runs the risk that the Plaintiff might propose a number that was only slightly higher (e.g., $51,000) or higher but still well within the range of what was reasonable (e.g., $62,500). Under such circumstances there would be no settlement and the Plaintiff would (without having incurred any prejudice) be able to demonstrate that the Defendant had walked away from a settlement that was highly favorable to the Defendant. (Note that, in this case, the lower the number, the easier it is for the Plaintiff to make that demonstration). Under these circumstances, the Plaintiff will be able to justify devoting its resources to litigation, and the Defendant and/or its counsel would be the ones facing the negative consequences referred to above.

    The above-described dynamic puts each party involved in a use of the System in a position where self-interest obliges it to (a) carefully consider what would constitute a reasonable range, and (b) use the System to propose a number within that range (or well within that range to protect itself in the event that it has miscalculated the outer limits). Self-interest obliges the initiating party to propose such a number, in confidence, at the outset (thus bestowing credibility upon its proposed number), and it obliges the other side to do so prior to a fixed deadline. (The System thus leaves lawyers – including lawyers that are experienced mediators – with a very important role to play: looking at the case from both sides and helping a party involved in a use of the System identify a number that falls within a reasonable settlement range.)

    The above-described features allow you to use the System unilaterally (i.e., without having to obtain your adversary’s cooperation or consent) to put yourself and your adversary in a position that is markedly different from the state of affairs that would otherwise exist. In the ordinary course of litigation, both parties are in a position where, given the potential for prejudice, neither party has any incentive to formulate, convey, and commit itself to a reasonable proposal until both parties arrive at a precipice such as the eve of trial, a period of time that is typically measured in years. (And here it should be noted that allowing the parties to use the System in multiple rounds, as referred to in your posting, would put the parties in a similarly unproductive position: in a multiple-round system, no round would have any credibility or probability of success until the final one, because each party would have an overwhelming incentive to posture, and an excuse for not bothering to use the System at all, until the final round was reached. Similar problems are also inherent in symmetrical “split-the-difference” sealed-bid mechanisms – they give each party incentives and excuses for posturing and/or for refusing to use the system at all.)

    It is also important to note that the System’s features will in many cases require each party to carefully reconsider and revise what it had initially viewed as a reasonable range (and to abandon its supposed “bottom line,” as parties routinely do). For example, the System allows the non-initiating party to engage in a learning process in complete secrecy and at no cost. In the case that you describe, if the Plaintiff goes down to $75,000 and there is no settlement, the Plaintiff learns that the Defendant is willing to allow the Plaintiff to demonstrate that the Defendant had lost an opportunity to settle for that amount. This would presumably cause the Plaintiff to at least consider, before declining to propose a lower amount, whether it had, itself, properly calculated the range that an independent, experienced attorney would view as reasonable. Thus, with regard to your inquiry about “how much information he [Ring] thinks we need about ourselves and the other side before we are ready to settle a case,” my response is that what you need in order to settle or make progress in any given case is to be able to obtain and convey credible information about both yourself and the other side in a non-prejudicial manner. That is what this System (in contrast to all other approaches) serves to provide in abundance.

    You also raise the issue of whether the parties might be afraid of doing what is often referred to as “leaving money on the table.” Note that if the non-initiating party (the “Second Party”) proposes a number that overlaps the First Party’s number, the case will settle for the First Party’s number – in other words, the Second Party cannot decline to use the System to propose a reasonable number out of a professed fear of leaving money on the table in any given use of the System. Nor does a Second Party that fails to propose a reasonable number have any rational basis for supposing that the First Party will ever offer a more favorable settlement than what was proposed through the System and left on the table by the Second Party at that time. A Second Party involved in any given use of the System is not obliged to go to what it considers to be its bottom line in order to protect its self-interest – it simply needs to make a proposal that falls well within the range of what is reasonable. But it should be noted that, if Second Parties are interested in obtaining a settlement that is equal to or better than their bottom line, they would be hard-pressed to try to articulate any rational basis for being, as you state in your post, “reluctant to put their most attractive numbers into the black box.”

    Turning back to the First Party, the First Party is committing to a process that may result in some loss of hypothetical surplus, similar to a party that initiates a traditional buy-sell arrangement (or the cake-cutting game of “I cut, you choose” that Peter describes). But this is not a serious disincentive to initiating a use of the System and proposing a reasonable number, because (a) one never knows – even in a settlement arrived at on the eve of trial – whether one has in some sense left money on the table, and (b) the surplus is purely hypothetical in the sense that it may not (as in your example) exist at all, and it has not and may not ever become available.

    The bottom line on the issue of leaving money on the table is that, if you are initiating the System as a First Party, you are proposing to settle the claim on terms that you deem to be reasonable (and doing so under conditions where you have a strong incentive to be honest and no incentive or opportunity to posture, similar to a buy-sell proposal). If you are reluctant to do this because you are transfixed by the prospect that your adversary might eventually be duped or in some other way induced to grant you more favorable terms (favorable enough to justify the costs associated with the delay), then you should not initiate a use of the System as a First Party (again, the System allows parties to learn a great deal about themselves). A litigant that is transfixed by that prospect (as many litigants are) would, instead, be a perfect candidate to be on the receiving end of a use of the System as a Second Party. As in buy-sell arrangements and the game of “I cut, you choose,” the non-initiating party does not have the luxury of sitting back and fantasizing about hypothetical surplus.

    I would not take strong exception to the suggestion that, with regard to what many people view as “the steps that parties have to go through before they are ready to negotiate, … Ring seems to be suggesting that we can avoid all those steps, and also avoid the whole negotiation phase. If that works, it sounds amazing.” To the extent that the steps in question or the negotiation phase itself involve posturing or attempting to credibly size-up or send self-serving signals to the other side, or involve attempting to persuade the other side to “transcend” the conflict or act in a manner that is adverse to its self-interest, I am suggesting that in many cases this not only can, but should be avoided because it is wasteful unless and until the parties have somehow already arrived at a precipice. As indicated in my prior post, once both parties finally arrive at a precipice where the incentives to posture decrease and credibility thus becomes enhanced, resolving disputes becomes relatively easy and virtually all cases will settle (without, I would note, either side ever having any basis for truly “knowing that they made the best possible deal”). What the System does is allow one party to unilaterally put both parties in a position where there are no incentives or opportunities to posture, and where credibility becomes enhanced, at a much earlier stage.

    For the reasons set forth above I think you are correct when you suggest that we are talking about two different things. In order to use this System, you do not “first have to establish a mutual willingness to settle, a mutual understanding of the probable value of the case, and perhaps… to get past some of the emotional or distracting issues that are preventing settlement.” Nor do you need anything akin to “a series of heart-to-heart conversations … to get both parties to a place where they are receptive to using” the System. It is not designed for use in contexts where the parties have finally arrived at a precipice and are “ready to negotiate.” It is designed to try to help such people during a much earlier, darker, and more protracted stage, wherein each party is primarily interested in trying to find ways to pursue and protect its self-interest, and wherein at least one, if not both parties, lacks any faith in it’s adversary’s capacity to be reasonable or to act in good faith. The System provides such parties – and allows lawyers and dispute-resolution professionals to provide such parties – with a simple and highly efficient solution.

    Readers can readily appreciate that I would not have traveled from Boston to San Francisco to speak at an ADR conference, or taken the time to submit the comments set forth above, unless I was satisfied that the System constituted a highly significant breakthrough that could be grasped and used by ADR professionals to help parties resolve disputes at a much earlier time, long before the stage at which both parties might be jointly willing to turn to an ADR professional for traditional forms of assistance. However, I also understand that the System may strike many members of the ADR community as contradicting or calling into question much of the received wisdom in the ADR field – anyone deeply steeped in ADR doctrine would have a better excuse than most for being confused. Nevertheless, I’m pleased to report that the audience at the talk referred to in Peter’s article – most of whom were from the ADR community – seemed to grasp the System very quickly and were overwhelming supportive. I am indebted to both Peter and Joe for giving me an opportunity to offer further information about the System within this forum, and I would invite readers that wish to obtain further information, or that wish to access, examine, and run free tests of the System, to do so via the above-referenced link:

  5. I could be one of those sufficiently steeped in conventional ADR wisdom that I am having trouble understanding this system. You seem to be saying that it is a virtue that the parties have no knowledge of how far apart they are on settlement, or even whether the other side responded to a settlement offer at all. But my instincts as a mediator tell me that I would really want the parties to know that they are, say, only $1000 apart. Because otherwise they are going to spend a whole lot more than that on legal fees for a case that they easily could have settled. I would also want them to know that they are far apart on settlement, because that tells them some important information about how differently each side views the same case, and also makes them feel more comfortable preparing for trial. I can see how the lack of knowledge might encourage both sides to put forward their most reasonable offers, but couldn’t lack of knowledge of how far apart the parties were also lead to some serious misconceptions?

    Possibly I am just resistant to the idea of substituting a robot for a human mediator. That said, I can envision some situations where something like the black box system could work. Do you have any empirical studies of your system?

  6. An oversimplified answer to your questions would be that, in a non-cooperative bargaining relationship, if either party believes that their proximity or distance will be revealed to the other side, the distance between them will remain vast. It’s a bit of a paradox, and one that mediators don’t generally have to deal with because, once a party agrees to go to mediation, it has already displayed significant weakness and can no longer credibly or effectively engage in the sort of behavior that defines the non-cooperative phase (which is not to say that some people won’t still try, as was evidenced by the fighting over the shape of the table at the Korean War Armistice talks).

    Again, this is not a mediation system, much less a mediation “robot” – it’s a commitment mechanism that causes convergence towards a focal solution, as discussed by Thomas C. Schelling in “The Strategy of Conflict” (Cambridge: Harvard Press, 1960), the work for which he won the 2005 Nobel Prize in Economic Science. See also, Schelling, Thomas C., “Arms and Influence” (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1966) (Schelling’s comment on our System, which appears on the System’s “Learn More” page, was as follows: “I read the description of your program and thought it ingenious. More than that, I thought it ought to find a market. I think it works.”)

    We have not conducted empirical studies of this system, having only rolled it out a few weeks ago, but if you are interested in reviewing empirical studies concerning this sort of approach to bargaining, I would urge you to look at the remarkable results described by Babcock, L., and Landeo, C., “Settlement Escrows: a Study of a Bilateral Bargaining Game,” Journal of Economic Behavior and Organization, Vol,53, No. 3, pp. 401-417 (2004) (Test subjects using this sort of approach to bargaining achieved bargained solutions 69% of the time, as opposed to a 49% rate for test subjects who used traditional bargaining, and had litigation costs that were 37% lower); see also, in this regard, Gertner, R. and Miller, G., “Settlement Escrows,” Journal of Legal Studies, Vol. 24, Issue 1, p. 87-122 (1995) (This sort of approach does not, in theory and in experimental contexts, simply increase settlements and reduce costs; it “generally leads to payoffs that are more in line with the underlying merits of the case…”)

    I promise to keep you posted.

  7. The devices at Ring’s website have a lot of potential for resolving many inherent conflicts in business deals.

    One can see how to expand them to cover more cases, and having S. Brahms as an advisor is terrific.

    But, the interchange between Joe and James shows the barriers to acceptance of these type of devices.

    Joe thinks that he has seen such a mediation device before, the sealed bid mechanism, and knows of its limitations.

    James is making a different point that what he offers is more like a buy-sell shotgun clause. The person who pulls the trigger gets a response. It is also a hard point to understand that the person who gives up a choice may in fact increase his commitment and power. (I created a small strategic interaction to show this, and also have a nice remark from Schelling about its value.)

    I would note however the historical use of Cortes and the Aztecs, is empirically false, yet many strategic thinkers continue to use it as an analogy for commitment.

    First, the Aztecs were not on the beach – the Indians Cortes had just defeated were not allies of the Aztecs, who were many miles inland.

    Second, Cortes didn’t destroy all his boats – he left one in good shape.

    Third, the Schelling act of commitment is used to persuade an adversary to go around or retreat – in this case Cortes needed something to propel his men forward. Cutting off their retreat to Cuba is not sufficient.

    Looking forward to more from James on his progress.

  8. Visitors to this website that are interested in learning more about game theory may wish to visit the following website, which provides a good overview and an excellent list of introductory texts:

    Visitors interested in learning more about the system referred to within the above article as the “Black Box” can now access a lengthy analytical paper on that system via the system’s “Learn More” page:

    Visitors interested in learning more about Cortés and the burning of the ships can find a fair amount of material on the web and may also wish to seek out a copy of “The Discovery and Conquest of Mexico,” a beautifully written eyewitness account by one of the conquistadors that served under Cortés. That account strongly supports the notion that Cortés, after having ordered the dismemberment and hanging of certain members of his company that had attempted to use one ship to flee back to Cuba, was trying to find a more definitive means for preventing such defections. But it also contains passages that suggest that, at the time that the ships were burned, Cortés and his staff understood that they were being observed and assessed by agents of Montezuma, and also understood that the burning of the ships constituted an act of commitment and will equivalent to the crossing of the Rubicon by Julius Caesar:

    “On Holy Thursday, in the year 1519, we arrived with all the fleet at the Port of San Juan de Ulúa, and as the Pilot Alaminos knew the place well from having come here with Juan de Grijalva he at once ordered the vessels to drop anchor where they would be safe from the northerly gales. The flagship hoisted her royal standards and pennants, and within half an hour of anchoring, two large canoes came out to us, full of Mexican Indians. Seeing the big ship with the standards flying they knew that it was there they must go to speak with the captain; so they went direct to the flagship and going on board asked who was the Tatuan, which in their language means the chief. Doña Marina, who understood the language well, pointed him out. Then the Indians paid many marks of respect to Cortés, according to their usage, and bade him welcome, and said their lord, a servant of the great Montezuma, had sent them to ask what kind of men we were…. Our Cortés thanked them through the two interpreters… [and] told them that we came to see them and to trade with them and that our arrival in their country should cause them no uneasiness but be looked on by them as fortunate. The messengers returned on shore well content, and the next day, which was Good Friday, we disembarked with the horses and guns….

    “As far as I can make out this matter of destroying the ships which we suggested to Cortés during our conversation, had already been decided on by him, but he wished it to appear as though it came from us, so that if any one should ask him to pay for the ships, he could say that he had acted on our advice and we would all be concerned in their payment. Then he sent Juan de Escalante to Villa Rica with orders to bring on shore all the anchors, cables, sails, and everything else on board which might prove useful, and then to destroy the ships….

    “When the ships had been destroyed, with our full knowledge, one morning after we had heard mass, when all the captains and soldiers were assembled and were talking to Cortés about military matters, he begged us to listen to him, and argued with us a follows: ‘We all understood what was the work that lay before us, and that with the help of our Lord Jesus Christ we must conquer in all battles and encounters that fell to our lot, and must be as ready for them as was befitting, for if we were anywhere defeated, which pray God would not happen, we could not raise our heads again, as we were so few in numbers, and we could look for no help or assistance, but that which came from God, for we no longer possessed ships in which to return to Cuba, but must rely on our good swords and stout hearts’ – and he went on to draw many comparisons and relate the heroic deeds of the Romans. One and all we answered him that we would obey his orders, that the die was cast for good fortune, as Caesar said when he crossed the Rubicon, and that we were all of us ready to serve God and the King.”

    Bernal Díaz del Castillo, “The Discovery and Conquest of Mexico” (edited from the only exact copy of the original manuscript by Genaro Garcia) (translation by A.O. Maudslay, New York: Farrar, Straus and Cudahy, 1956, pages 69-70, 109-110).

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